Death in the desert

The Economist

Two French reporters are killed in an attack that bears the hallmarks of al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb

IT WAS brutal and perhaps unexpected. Two French journalists in the northern Malian town of Kidal, an unlovely settlement on the southern flank of the Sahara, were seized by gunmen as they left a meeting with an ethnic Tuareg separatist on November 2nd, driven into the desert and executed. French troops found their corpses hours later. Although jihadists hiding out in the desert have launched a spate of attacks in recent weeks, these have tended to be opportunistic—a mortar attack here, a suicide bombing there. The abduction of the reporters in broad daylight in the centre of town required proper intelligence and planning. Several hundred UN peacekeepers based moments away knew nothing about it until it was far too late.

Although the assailants escaped unrecognised, the attack bears some of the hallmarks of al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM), whose fighters seized three tourists in similar fashion in Timbuktu in late 2011. This time, instead of attempting to ransom their victims, the gunmen killed them so swiftly that security analysts suggest the murders were pre-meditated. Alternatively, it may transpire that this was a botched kidnapping; four other hostages were released by Mali-based jihadists last week, for a reported $20m ransom. In either case, AQIM and its jihadist allies are the most obvious beneficiaries of the atrocity, which helps to undermine the Malian government, its foreign allies and Tuareg separatists engaged in a peace process. The militants have been vanquished on the battlefield but their insurgency is alive and kicking.

It would also be typical of AQIM that its actions not only cock a snook at the French but undercut the secular Tuareg resistance movement—known by its French acronym as the MNLA—with which the jihadists have jostled for superiority over the past 18 months, and whose official the reporters had just interviewed when they were seized. It looks bad when guests are abducted on your doorstep, particularly in a place like northern Mali where notions of hospitality and honour hold greater sway than in more industrialised societies. And since the attackers knew exactly when and where the journalists would conclude their interview, there must be suspicion that someone within the movement tipped them off.

In a way, this would be unsurprising. The MNLA is as riven internally as the termite mounds that dot the region, and its infiltration by AQIM is well-established, however much a majority of Tuareg rebels may loathe the jihadist cause. If evidence emerges of an inside job, it could damage an already fragile peace process. For its part the MNLA has denounced the killings and sworn “to try to identify the guilty”. The French have also promised a response, with government sources in Paris suggesting that troops deployed in northern Mali will step up patrols and checkpoints. Overstretched UN peacekeepers have used the incident to lobby for more resources.

More broadly, the murders speak to one of the fundamental problems facing Mali. Despite the French intervention and a UN peacekeeping operation, large swathes of the country are still at the mercy of armed groups with niche agendas. The Malian defence minister, Soumeilou Boubeye Maiga, has conceded that “the sovereignty of the state is not effective” in Kidal. Changing this will be difficult. Legislative elections later this month will purport to haul Mali back to democratic rule, but unless elected deputies have a genuine mandate from their constituents—a big “if”—the process of reconstruction will remain mired in corruption and illegitimacy. That would breed yet more instability.

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